Charlie McGeehan, the U School
For the U School humanities teacher Charlie McGeehan, introducing social justice in the classroom can be a challenge. Due to the U School’s teaching strategy, where students are taught to work independently, McGeehan takes a less active role than teachers in traditional schools. This constraint, however, gives him the chance to listen and support, instead of lecture and dictate.
“Listening to students is important here,” said McGeehan, now in his second year at the school. “I’m not positing myself as the expert lecturer in this classroom. I’m building the curriculum.
“I am here to help guide your thoughts and help make sure that you’re getting a clear understanding and you’re doing rigorous, intense work. But I’m not here to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.”
The U School’s education model allows students to be “self-driven learners” through paced, independent projects. At the beginning of each instructional unit, students, as a group, discuss the material with the instructor to find an aspect that interests them.
Once they’ve decided on an approach, they’re given an assignment to work on independently focusing on that aspect. Each student collaborates with the teacher, as well as his or her peers (peer-reviewing is a requirement), along the way to help develop the project.
This year, students in McGeehan’s class have learned about the election process and voting rights and examined the concept of rags to riches through analysis of the play Hamilton.
“I want to provide a rich learning experience for my students that is life- and interest- and passion-affirming,” he said. “And I think for students in Philadelphia schools, right now, that’s not an experience that is being provided across their education, for whatever reason.”
The U School’s teaching model creates a challenge for teachers looking to introduce students to social justice through lectures or class projects, because much of the dialogue about the material is focused on student interest. But many students choose to focus on those issues, McGeehan said, putting him in the role of a facilitator to develop those ideas.
“I am here to ask questions,” McGeehan said. “I am here to promote dialogue. I am here to bring out and bring up and encourage those conversations. I am not here to hold them back and say that’s as far as we can go.”
Last school year, McGeehan assigned the students a project where they had to write an argumentative letter to the next president of the United States. One of his students, Anthony Rivera, a sophomore in the class, decided to write a poem called “Freeze,” in which he compares the game of freeze tag to a person having a gun aimed at them by police. He recorded a video for the poem, presented it to class, then released it online.
During the summer, Rivera was honored with a Young Heroes award at the National Liberty Museum for his work.
McGeehan’s assignment didn’t require more than an argumentative letter, but he was pleased to see Rivera commit to such rigorous work and take it beyond the class. He hopes to see more students be that diligent.
“All students had to do was turn in an argumentative letter,” he said. “He didn’t have to make a video, he didn’t have to do any of that. And that’s our goal. That’s what we want everybody to do.”
McGeehan recognizes the challenge of teaching this way, where in-depth class discussions aren’t a part of the learning process, making it difficult to present and guide a conversation. Nevertheless, he understands that such work can be done by listening to and supporting student’s endeavors.
“It’s here,” McGeehan said. “But we’re doing it in a different way.”